We had the good fortune of connecting with Michael Herbert Dorn and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Michael Herbert, can you tell us more about your background and the role it’s played in shaping who you are today?
I was born to American parents in St. George’s, Bermuda at Kindley Air Force Base Hospital. My father was a United States Air Force (USAF) serviceman stationed at the Air Base (base deactivated, 1995.). I was still an infant when my parents returned to the United States for my father’s next duty assignment.
During my “formative years,” we moved frequently and lived in several locations including New Jersey, Oklahoma, Nevada, Washington, D.C., Southern California, and finally settling in Maryland when my father retired from the USAF in 1975. It is probably a story told in many military families. I think moving around the United States during childhood left me with a contradictory sense that I could be both at home anywhere and that nowhere was really my home. This sensibility has been with me throughout my adult life as I have continued to travel and reside in different parts of the world.
Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
I call myself a “post-contemporary” oil painter. What I mean by post-contemporary will become more apparent as I briefly describe my working processes. My current painting project takes a look back in art history. It appropriates (or expropriates—depending on one’s viewpoint) the view of a particular foundational oil painting of the early renaissance, northern renaissance, mannerism, baroque, or the neoclassical periods of art history, respectively.
I use both religious and secular themed paintings. Using digital images of these paintings, I essentially recreate these “classical” works of art as color-inverted images—they appear as what used to be called a (film) “negative” in the commercial heyday of photographic films like Kodak, Fuji, and Ilford. But that’s not all. I have painted an additional figure within the negative field of these images—a so-called “racially-black” figure. I usually place this interloper figure within a pictorial space that appears to me to be inactive in the original paintings.
This creates a new, two-way visual context. My process begins with the search for a suitable “classical” painting. Whenever possible, I try to directly study and take high-resolution digital photographs of the actual painting. Museum visits have become nearly impossible with the manifestation of COVID-19. So, now I either purchase or locate free images online. Within Photoshop, I then make color adjustments to the image, including its color inversion. I will sometimes alter the saturation and the color temperature of the image. After that, I will usually make one or more small freehand color “poster-studies” in oil paints to explore the color relationships and the composition.
In these sketches, I include all aspects of the inverted “classical” painting and the added “non-color inverted” (color-positive) figure. Then, I make an underdrawing on my canvas using blue Staedtler Lumichrome drafting leads. I’ll then apply a very thin layer of semi-opaque titanium white paint to the entire canvas. This scumble layer is called a half-paste. This half-paste becomes what in the early Italian method is termed the campitura layer. Over this, I begin to apply my color over the now faintly visible blue lines of the underpainting, modeling the forms as I go along.
I work each section very close to the final finish, except the central background, which I’ll generally lay in during the final stages. Of course, this is a very fluid process, and it never follows one-two-three like I’ve just written. Both my creative process and the ideological foundation of my project depends upon digital media. Of critical importance in this painting series is the spectator’s use of their digital mobile device to provide an active digitally color-inverted view of the paintings displayed within the exhibition space.
Viewing an analog painting with the aid of a mobile digital-media device is explicitly a new way of encountering and extending a painting’s semantic potential by challenging the conventional notion of how we (traditionally) experience or view a “painting.” This project came about as I began to explore and question the development of European and Eurocentric racial ideologies (namely, white-supremacy) that were concurrent with the development of many of the aforementioned art historical periods and many confluent Eurocentric philosophical systems.
My current project also resonates with my questioning of how contemporary political, social, and cultural ideas interact with the plastic arts from the European past. Some artists/writers might classify the post-contemporary as an aesthetic or a critical construct. But I am doubtful of the limiting framework of those terms. Other writers have called the post-contemporary a movement akin to the Baroque redux or Neoclassical redux. Not me. By post-contemporary, I do not mean the widely held consensus that post-contemporary artworks merely or mainly exhibit the traits of skillful execution, creativity, and expresses some degree of “empathy.”
I would say that there are many works done by some of the most well trained and technically skilled artists in the world that are not post-contemporary. I’m afraid I also have to disagree that what is being called post-contemporary art is some newfangled way of positing traditional, global, or universal values—as opposed to contemporary art, which they claim pertain to transient (or spurious), topical, or local values.
For me, the post-contemporary artist holds a generous view upon all the myriad forms of what we call art history. By generous, I think I mean a view through a capacity towards moral imagination, that distinct quality of understanding (a work of art) within the general and specific context of its creation. Above all things, the post-contemporary implementations proceed as a form of inquiry into how historical (Eurocentric) visual culture has been used and is being used to inculcate, delineate, underscore, and establish the political, social, and cultural artifacts of our age.
The post-contemporary artist is not at all interested in the so-called art historical tradition for the sake of hegemonic notions of tradition and the idea that “it was better back then.” For me, post-contemporary artists must make an in-depth inquiry into how the visually received narratives function within our contemporary milieux to create injustice, lies, and outright deceptions. Within this post-contemporary sphere, my primary interest is in exploring and challenging the ideas fomented by the representation (or lack thereof) of non-white peoples in classical European art.
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
Well, my “shoutout” dedication is twofold. Without my wife Susanne’s constant encouragement, patience, and energetic support it would not have been possible for me to have continued to develop as an artist. Also, it would be a terrible omission if I failed to give credit and praise to the source of my faith, Mashiach, Yahushua. Without Him I would not have truly understood what in life is valuable, what is less valuable, and what is worthless.